Friday, April 28, 2017

Yesterday was a good day. First, I sat in on an excellent class with a terrific group of high schoolers from all over the world. Then, in the evening, I debuted my poem "Duet for Uncle Paul" at a reading where I also got to spend time with the work and the company of three other fine Maine poets.

I've designed the poem for two voices, but I last night I had only myself as reader. I was glad to see, however, that the difference in the written voices made them easy to distinguish, and the audience members were very helpful in their reactions to the balance of the two parts. Of course I was nervous about bringing such a new piece into the air, but I kept telling myself, What the hell? Why not try? It was Paul's birthday earlier this week: he would have been 72. The coincidences had aligned, and I am a sucker for coincidence.

This morning I'm going back to the high school for another volunteer session, and then I will come home and open all the windows because outside it will be warm and damp and spring. I feel so energized from having spent a day being useful. I haven't felt particularly useful to anyone, for most of a year. It's a hard identity to lose.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

I may have finally found the Vietnam War book I was hoping to discover: Frances FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. FitzGerald was a freelance journalist during the war, publishing her reports in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and other such literary venues. Her book, which won a Pulitzer, was published in 1972; and instead of focusing exclusively on combat engagements and politician behaviors, it also works to reflect the war through the eyes of everyday Vietnamese and American citizens. Moreover, FitzGerald can spin a narrative, which, I'm sorry to say, many military historians and journalists cannot. I've been kicking myself for getting so bored with most of the books I've taken out of the library. But really, the tedium wasn't all my fault.

This morning, I'm off to sit in on an ELL writing class at a local high school, and then I've got to prep for my reading in Yarmouth tonight. I just might wear my beautiful new dress.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tomorrow evening I'll be doing my National Poetry Month duty--e.g., reading with Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, Megan Grumbling, and Jim Thatcher at Merrill Memorial Library, on Main Street in Yarmouth, Maine. I'd love to see you there.

And next weekend I'm scheduled to teach a day-long poetry workshop for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, this time way up in Trescott, in Washington County. So if you're in the hinterlands and are looking for something to do on May 6, you might consider signing up.

Otherwise, life continues apace, as does the rain. I fetched Tom home from the airport at midnight last night, so my cloistered long weekend is now officially over. I wish I'd accomplished more writing-wise than I did, but four new pages in an essay draft that's been driving me crazy for six weeks are not nothing. On my rainy walk to yoga class yesterday afternoon, I noticed that a few flowering trees are beginning to blossom, and the parks smell of wet grass and thawed soil and joyful dogs. I am trying hard not to let my thoughts turn to my garden back home.

What I am going to do is walk out into the spring rain, and then trudge back up the stairs to the doll-house and write a syllabus, and then fix oven-fried chicken for the one I love.
                                              Delirium,
This talk of art & love, the odds & ends! 
--from Hayden Carruth, "The Sleeping Beauty"

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Yesterday I received notice that my collection Songs about Women and Men was a semi-finalist for the Dorset Prize. This is the second time this season that I've had a collection place well in a contest: early in the year, Chestnut Ridge was a semi-finalist for the Wilder Prize.

I'm gratified that readers seem to be interested in both collections, but of course I'm also frustrated because I can't seem to get beyond that status. Then again, I haven't been applying to contests for all that long. So I guess I should be patient with myself.

Both collections are sitting on the desks of various non-contest publishers, so maybe something will happen there. Reading fashions change, that's for sure. For a while, I'd given up on Chestnut Ridge entirely, and now, since the election, it seems to be garnering at least some attention. I was listening to an interview with the playwright Lynn Nottage, who researched and wrote her play Sweat (about working-class Reading, Pennsylvania) well before Trump came to power. Yet audiences, post-Trump, are responding to it as a topical statement. The same may be true of Chestnut Ridge. But I hate to allow myself to get too optimistic. There are a lot of people out there trying to publish poetry manuscripts. I've heard that roughly a thousand people submitted to the Dorset Prize. I'm lucky to get any kind of notice.

Monday, April 24, 2017

This morning I will be having a Skype conversation with a classroom full of Oklahoma undergraduates who are studying editing. I am the exemplar of "freelance editing," and I am a little nervous about the idea that students are actually imagining it to be a lucrative career. Um, no.

I am also a little nervous about the cat's ability to behave himself for 45 minutes. If he doesn't, I guess the students will get to glimpse another downside of freelancing.

After the Skype session, I'm hoping to get some new writing started. I've been in a pattern lately: read read read read, write. Read read read read, write. It's a common-enough pattern for me, but the read sections are going on for an unusual length of time, and often they feel more like floundering among texts than like any productive gathering of information. Poem research isn't historical research, that's for sure.

Early this morning I woke up to barking, and thought, Oh someone's come up the driveway. And then I realized that my dog was dead and I don't have a driveway anymore. It was a sad way to wake up.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

This morning's view: sunshine, wet green grass, and a clear blue sea. And in frivolous news, I bought the most beautiful dress yesterday, and it only cost $25.

I spent my Saturday slowly filling time. I tried on 13 items of clothing at the store. I cooked an Asian noodle dish that required me to chop and cook small amounts of many different kinds of vegetables. I went outside into the drizzle and took a slow walk along the shore.  I spent much time reading Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. And so my day alone turned out to be a good day, a very good day.

I know that some portion of my Sunday needs to involve housework, but that's okay too. I like clean floors and tidy surfaces and a well-scrubbed bathtub. Housework is not a waste of time. It's another way to acquaint oneself with place. And because this doll-house is the only place I've got, I take its condition seriously.






Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Wednesday night, when I was up north, I drove blindly through a dense snow squall. Here in Portland, there's nothing but rain. It fell all day yesterday, and all through the night, and is still falling now . . . mostly as a dense drizzle, but sometimes more urgently, sometimes as a patter of drops.

Out on the deck, my row of arugula seeds has sprouted, and my stalwart pansies and herb seedlings twitch in a small wet wind. Inside, the cat is draped over the radiator. The doll-house smells of coffee and toast.

Yesterday I finished War and Peace for the the thousandth time, and now I have started reading Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad for the first time. I spent some time yesterday copying out Carruth's poetry and scanning through Takin' It to the Streets, an anthology of writings from the 1960s. Among them is a speech titled "The Incredible War," which the president of Students for a Democratic Society delivered at a 1965 anti-war rally in front of the Washington Monument. The president's name was Paul Potter, and he is no relation to me. He just happens to share a name and an era with my uncle.

In his speech, that other Paul Potter said:
The war goes on; the freedom to conduct that war depends on the dehumanization not only of the Vietnamese people but of Americans as well; it depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisors thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of the decisions they make. I do not believe that the President or Mr. Rusk or Mr. McNamara or even McGeorge Bundy are particularly evil men. If asked to throw napalm on the back of a ten-year-old child they would shrink in horror--but their decisions have led to mutilation and death of thousands and thousands of people. 
What kind of system is it that allows good men to make those kinds of decisions? What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country [in] seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values--and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world?
Three years later, in a letter to his older brother, written in early 1968, my Paul Potter wrote:
I've been having quite a time over here. I'm in the unit that does all the good stuff that I wanted to get into.
No wonder his older brother still cries when we talk about those days.

Friday, April 21, 2017

This morning has been a flurry of packing as Tom gets ready to fly to Chicago for a long weekend with our older son. He has not been on a plane for years, not since all of the new TSA regulations came into being, so he is slightly flustered by all the prohibitions . . . but also amused. "Did you know," he reads aloud to me, "that I am allowed to bring along 'artificial skeleton bones'?"

Unfortunately, we do not have any artificial skeleton bones for him to try out on the TSA guys, though we do have some deer antlers. Perhaps he should pack them.

So I will revert to last year's single life, for a weekend. I don't really have any plans, other than to go to the Subaru dealership to buy a stupid piece of plastic housing that fell off my car and maybe I'll also try to force myself to go clothes shopping so that I can acquire some summer shirts that don't have holes in them.

But this weekend I will open that folder of papers from my uncle Paul. I will finish copying out Carruth's "Sleeping Beauty." I will go for a walk beside the ocean.

And now Tom has just walked into the room to inform me that the TSA says he's allowed to travel with "gravy" and a "waffle iron." It's so wonderful they're looking out for our needs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I'm heading up north this afternoon for band practice, so I'll be on the road tomorrow morning and probably won't get a chance to write to you. I haven't played music for a few weeks and am worried about my rustiness, but c'est la vie, I guess. At least the days are longer now and I don't have to drive up in the dark. At least it's baseball season and I can listen to the Red Sox as I drive over the mud and the frost heaves to my bed at my friends' house.

Yesterday I got a flurry of Frost Place applications: four in one day! That was exciting, and it also made me realize that I should warn any of you who hopes to take part in the optional Writing Intensive but hasn't submitted an app yet: Submit now, or you risk losing your place. Because of space constraints, I have to cap the WI numbers at twelve, and we only have three openings left. So do not delay.

I also wanted to let you know that I've got some openings for manuscript work in May. A few of you have mentioned that you'd like me to look at poem sheafs or complete manuscripts, and now would be a good time to contact me, before my Frost Place rush begins. In addition, if you have visiting writer openings for the fall or can negotiate any reading/workshop opportunities, we could talk about that possibility too. I know my move to Portland has thrown me off track, but I am ready to climb back onto the train. And traveling out of state is so much easier for me than it used to be. Do be in touch.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

My poem "Petition" is up at Vox Populi today.

The piece was triggered by one of those public notices printed in the classified sections of newspapers--in this case, from the State of Maine Probate Court, which was going through the legal motions of tracking down a parent who had disappeared.

The print version of this poem includes some indents, but WordPress doesn't manage them well, so the editor and I reconfigured the format slightly. I'd be glad to send you a copy if you're interested in examining how the indentation affects the tenor of the piece.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Yesterday the Prom was populated with crowds of dogs playing Frisbee, and girls chasing each other around in their Easter dresses, and lovers canoodling on benches, and families having picnics, and small children squealing, and young women tanning in various states of undress, and a remarkable number of couples in color-coordinated outfits. Today will be quieter, but the weather should be just as warm. For now, the only action is a sailboat and three guys laughing in Spanish.

I had an early morning dream last night about one of my publishers, who turns out to be about 8 feet tall and who made scurrilous remarks about my intelligence when we were trapped together in an elevator or something. Later in the dream she morphed into Captain of the Rescue Ship during Armageddon, with her version of Saint Peter at the Gates being the crabby janitor at the Harmony School. He decided not to let one Harmony citizen onto the ship but grudgingly gave me a place. I woke up before I learned whether the publisher would kick me off the boat if she knew I were there.

As a result of this dream, I feel like I've been bonked with a cartoon hammer. I hope the coffee helps.


Sunday, April 16, 2017


A teeny-tiny bit of country in the city. I am trying.
I am alone this Easter morning.

Yesterday afternoon Tom drove the boy back to college, but he'll be home tonight, in time for dinner. In the meantime I have mostly been idle. I spent some time on the deck, watching the walkers walk and the sailboats sail. I spent some time washing dishes and listening to baseball. I trudged to the fish market and bought crabmeat and a whole ocean perch for dinner tonight. I did not open the folder of my uncle's papers.

Now the window is open, and a car hisses by on the wet pavement. Remnants of last night's rain silver the deck railings, and my little herb plants are glistening in the thin wet daylight.

Yesterday, when I drove past my land in Harmony, I could see that the new owner has begun to cut some trees. I am trying not to think about that.

But today I feel so rootless. It is hard.

Friday, April 14, 2017

 A bright morning, but cool. And now, on the deck outside my bedroom window, sit two fat planters, one packed with herbs, the other seeded with various greens: mesclun mix, arugula, chard, red kale. I am inordinately pleased. I guess that's what happens when an elegist relinquishes her 40 acres . . . she can't stop staring at two containers of dirt.

Later today the boy and I will drive north into the land of mud and sodden snow and roaring woodstoves and dirty boots and black skies. Later today I may bring myself to open the folder of my uncle's papers that my father gave me a few days ago.

I have been slowly reading Marilynne Robinson's novel Home, slowly re-reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, slowly copying out Carruth's Sleeping Beauty. I have been talking to editors about both of my poetry manuscripts. I have been editing a book about censorship, and mulling over the poetry workshop I'm scheduled to teach in May, and prepping for the Frost Place conference. I have been sweeping floors and washing clothes. I have been criss-crossing the highways of New England and New York. I have been listening to baseball games, to a podcast about Grace Kelly, to birdsong, to the songs of Bob Marley, to the chatter of my son. I have been walking up steep hills in the sun and the rain.

"Place is the now / which is eternal. And we are passing on." --Hayden Carruth, "Vermont"

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Well, I'm back from Vermont, and the boy is once again in the house: sleeping, eating, listening to baseball, and making his parents watch cute-animal videos and hip YouTube explanations of how leitmotif works in Schubert's lieder. Tomorrow he and I will head north for an overnight with our friends in the woods, but for the moment we are perched here in the doll-house, and I will attempt to get some work done this morning while he is still unconscious.

Spring seems to have set her foot firmly on the ground. After a day of rain, the grass in the park is greening and the air has softened. The doll-house is suffused with the scent of hyacinths, and I am itching to plant things on the deck. Probably I won't have very good luck out there as the exposure is due north, but that won't stop me from trying. But first I have to acquire pots and soil and seeds and plants and watering cans, and I have no idea where the nurseries are in this town, and I have no idea how hard it will be to manage all of this while climbing in and out of a window onto the deck and simultaneously fighting with a cat who is plotting an escapade. There is always something new to learn in this world.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The weather was rainy and raw in New York, but I returned to Portland just in time for spring. In New York I went to the Morgan and I went to the Whitney and I walked on the High Line and I stayed up late in Brooklyn eating cuttlefish with kumquats and listening to REM outtakes. In Portland I went for a walk at Fort Williams (which is really down the road in Cape Elizabeth) and enjoyed the delightful combination of crashing waves and peculiar WWI-era fort ruins. Then I went back to the doll-house and washed the floors and listened to a baseball game and made a salad of farro and brussels sprouts and cherry tomatoes and smoked tuna and fell asleep at 8:45.

Tomorrow I'm on the road again . . . off to Vermont to fetch the boy home for spring break. I'm sure my correspondence will be spotty this week, given that he doesn't drive but wants to visit friends and relatives far and near. Ah, well. There are worse things in this world than driving around northern New England singing along to the radio with my big chatty son. Many worse things. Few better ones.


Friday, April 7, 2017

And here I am in Brooklyn, New York, eating a leftover burrito for breakfast and considering a walk up to the botanical garden.

Here I am, citizen of the nation that is bombing Syria.

Cars honk; a bus whirrs past.

My children are not being gassed or lying homeless on a wet street.

I cannot stop imagining.

What does a watcher do with the simultaneity of these statements?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

You will not hear from me tomorrow morning as I'll need to leave the doll-house before dawn to catch my bus to NYC. But I hope to check in with you at some point during my wet and whirlwind trip.

Today I'll need to figure out how to fill a few spare hours tomorrow afternoon. More importantly, I'll need to decide what outfit to wear for a morning that will involve sandwich crumbs on a bus, followed by an afternoon spent walking around the city in torrential rain, followed by an evening presentation among people I've never met. What is the correct attire for such a variable occasion? I have no idea.

Yesterday I revisited an essay draft I started a couple of weeks ago, and I think maybe I've decided where to go with it. But we'll see if I have time to do anything about that idea: my new editing project has also arrived, and the next couple of weeks are going to involve a fair amount of travel. Still, even though the writing honeymoon is over, at least I got a big poem out of it.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

I'm still waiting for a new editing assignment to arrive, so in the meantime I've been copying out Carruth's long poem "The Sleeping Beauty," reading a collection of Vietnam-era letters, finishing Komunyakaa's Warhorses, continuing to make my way through War and Peace, and tinkering with my poem draft, which has crept close to a final version. Yesterday afternoon I opened all of the windows, and swept the floors, and marinated two fat pork chops in lemon and fresh sage, and listened joyfully to the Red Sox win their opening-day game. But the rest of the week will be a different tale, one involving thick rain and a raw spring wind.

On Thursday morning I'll be taking the bus to NYC for a Frost Place event, and the forecast is intimating that I'll be jostling through rush-hour Manhattan in an umbrella forest instead of ambling along the High Line gazing at daffodils. Oh, well. At least I'll have the excitement of an easy commute. Getting from Harmony to Manhattan was an arduous all-day event: an hour's drive to the Augusta bus station, then a total of 10 hours or more spent getting to Boston, sitting around in South Station waiting for a connection, and then climbing onto another bus that might or might not take me directly to Port Authority. But now all I have to do is wake up at the crack of dawn, convince Tom to drive me 10 minutes to the bus station, and catch an express that goes directly to the city. Total travel time = 6 hours. Amazing.

If you're in the NYC area and interested in attending this Frost Place open house, let me know and I will send you the particulars.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Not long ago the editor-in-chief of a very well known small press contacted me to ask if I would be interested in being considered for a position at the press. Essentially that position was to be his heir apparent, and I'm going to tell you right now that I did not get hired for the job. The press ended up promoting someone from inside, at least in part, I am told, because of growing financial anxiety related to National Endowment for the Arts funding. But I was one of three finalists for a position that I never went out looking for, so that in itself was bracing. Yes, it was kind of like being an unpublished finalist in a poetry contest, but there was nonetheless a certain uplift to the experience, in a not-getting-paid sort of way.

So here I am, still the same old seat-of-her-pants freelancer, tinkering with manuscripts and such. And the temperature is supposed to rise into the 50s, and in a few days I'll be heading to New York City for a Frost Place event, and my doll-house is clean and neat, and the cat is not currently biting me, and the dentist has assured me that I do not need a root canal, and it's opening day for the Red Sox. I'm feeling pretty cheerful. I hope you are too.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tolstoy as Oracle

This morning, over coffee, I opened my copy of Garnett's translation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I have been slowly re-reading for the hundredth time, and immediately fell face-first into the following paragraph:
And not for that hour and day only were the mind and conscience darkened in that man, on whom the burden of all that was being done lay even more heavily than on all the others who took part in it. Never, down to the end of his life, had he the least comprehension of good, of beauty, of truth, of the significance of his own acts, which were too far opposed to truth and goodness, too remote from everything human for him to be able to grasp their significance. He could not disavow his own acts, that were lauded by half the world, and so he was forced to disavow truth and goodness and everything human.
Tolstoy does not include a proper noun in the paragraph, and thus he allows it to function as a generalization in which "that man" could be any number of men, any number of humans. If I substitute "Donald J. Trump" for "that man," the paragraph assumes an ominous topicality . . . ominous because, even in his delineation of evil, Tolstoy allows us to pity this person "on whom the burden of all that was being done lay even more heavily than on all the others who took part in it." And when we pity someone, we make allowances for his evil.

This paragraph disturbs me, in great part, because I naturally want to believe that pity is a humane reaction, an altruism. Yet it, too, is a blinder, and that is a painful truth to face.

If you're familiar with War and Peace, you've probably already guessed that Tolstoy's "that man" is Napoleon. That knowledge adds another level of distaste to my reading of the paragraph. If I can easily substitute the words "Donald J. Trump" for "Napoleon Bonaparte," what does that indicate about the way in which the passage of time and the constructions of history twist our conceptions of hero and leader and nobility and just cause and intelligence and bravery--not to mention our aptitude for pity? I have no love for Napoleon as a historical figure, but neither have I focused on the fact that his behavior was not so different from Trump's.

As advertisement, the label Napoleon bears some equivalence to the neon lights of Trump Tower. Both names continue to blare. And it's terrible to even begin to count the similarities in the urge toward empire.

The amazing part of all this angst and ambiguity is, of course, Tolstoy. How did he know? And how does he manage to keep telling us?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

What a nasty first day of April. All night long we endured a variety show of snow rain slush rain snow wind slush wind rain snow, etcetera. You might call it a slopstorm. Now, thanks to the road salt, the sidewalks look like they've been spackled with half-melted shortening mixed with graham-cracker crumbs. The streets are a blackened mess of plow scrape and water. The ocean is hiding under a cloud, and Tom is hiding under the comforter.

Fortunately we have plenty of coffee and bagels, and we don't own a dog we have to walk. Fortunately this apartment is warm, even though the windows are drafty. Fortunately I cooked too many mussels for dinner last night, so we have a lot left over for mussel stew today. In other good news, I went to the dentist on Thursday and learned that I do not need a root canal. What news could be better?

Probably I ought to do some housework, but I don't mind that. I've got a stack of library books to study, and a crossword puzzle book for wasting time. I can play a few games of String with the cat. I can listen to records. If I can override my hatred for my kitchen, I can bake cookies. I can watch the Final Four and text about the games laconically with my son.

I've also got that new poem vibrating in its corner. I could look at it. Or I could leave it alone. Either way will feel like the right thing to do. If I choose to leave it alone, I can keep copying out Carruth's long poem "The Sleeping Beauty." I can keep considering the structure of Komunyakaa's "Autobiography of My Alter Ego."

I was thinking the other day about the difference between boredom and idleness. Idleness is a canoe floating down a placid stream, whereas boredom is a hideous sucking monster. Maybe the difference between the pair is analogous to the difference between melancholy and depression. They seem to be made of the same materials, yet one is a gift and the other is torment.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Yesterday morning a journal accepted a batch of four poems from my newest manuscript, Songs about Women and Men, meaning that, as of now, nearly all of the pieces in that manuscript have been placed. That does feel good. Still, I'm not enjoying the awkwardness of juggling two manuscripts simultaneously. I can't help but compare them against each other, even though they're entirely different entities.

But at least a few editors are reading the poems, and responding to them, so that is a comfort. And today I will blunder on with my Vietnam project, hoping I will find some new rabbit hole to swallow me up. Last night I checked out two more library books: Yusef Komunyakaa's poetry collection Warhorses and John Prados's history The Blood Road: The Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Vietnam War. It has become clear to me that my uncle's Special Forces group was heavily involved in covert actions to stem the flow of North Vietnamese soldiers and armaments through this trail, and indeed the book includes the first mention I've seen in print (rather than online) of the sapper attack that killed him.

I'm also going to follow up on a strange coincidence: the fact that a prominent leader of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society was also named Paul Potter. There's no family relationship, and I have no reason to believe that my uncle had any thoughts about him, one way or the other. Still, the overlap is odd, and I like coincidences.

That said, I am not thrilled that Vladimir Putin and I share a birthday. So please do not write a poem about us.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I've kneaded the poem into resting shape. It may change considerably. It may settle into itself. But it exists.

Right now the piece is eight pages long, and I've laid it out as a duet for two voices. Although some of my western Pennsylvania poems also experiment with various choral patterns, this is my first extended duet; and I've arranged the voices to alternate rather than overlap--something I may change eventually. Or I may not. For now, the alternation feels necessary, a way of delineating assumptions about known and unknown.

Anyway, here it sits, the enormous problem, new-born into a body of words.

Outside my window, the tide is retreating, and the mud flats are rising up from the seabed like scrubby cold imitations of Atlantis. A strip of sunrise clings to the horizon. Stop signs twitch in the breeze. Dogs tug on their leashes. The unseen interstate growls.
I have not seen you,
I do not know your names,
I do not know
what I am talking about. 
--from Hayden Carruth, "The Birds of Vietnam"

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

In yesterday's post I bitched and moaned about how much I hate writing, and today I take it all back and admit that, after I composed that note to you, I immediately fell headfirst into the writing hole and didn't clamber back out until five o'clock in the afternoon. At the end of the day I possessed a seven-page draft, with a structure and a dramatic arc. It was a miracle. And it goes to show you that I know nothing about the creative process, so do not ask me for advice.

Today I thought I was going to the dentist, but it turns out that I read my calendar wrong (a common side-effect of falling into the writing hole, akin to driving past my own exit or forgetting to pick up my kid from his piano lesson). Instead, I have another day of "write write write," which is to say, anything could happen. Tomorrow I may have to reveal to you that I spent much of the day on the couch watching Star Trek reruns. Or that I decided to hand-wash all of the wool sweaters. Or that I accidentally brought home a puppy.

Anyway today's embarrassment is worth it. Because I have a draft.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Yesterday I wrote and wrote, and what I wrote was pretty awful, but at least it's been ejected into some version of actuality. I am definitely not in the zone: every word feels like a jackhammer to my skull. Still, I did manage to blurt out four pages of dense undigested garble, so I've got material to revise.

Like a coward, I'm yearning for distraction. Surely someone will need me to do something! Please! . . . but no: I've got another whole day to myself, and I'd better make use of it. Ugh. Writing is so awful. Why do people do it?

A few days ago, a poet-acquaintance commented on Facebook that her local coffee shop was offering free coffee to anyone who wrote a poem. "How is that a bargain?" she asked plaintively. "It's a million times easier just to pay for coffee."

No kidding.

Anyway, off I trudge to the mines. Let's hope the methane levels stay under control and the supports don't start crumbling.

Monday, March 27, 2017

from "Spin" by Tim O'Brien

You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That's the real obsession. All those stories.

* * *

It's raining today, which is far better than the sleet originally forecast. The snow in the park is dwindling in streaks and clots, and on my walks I have seen a handful of crocuses, two spindly snowdrops, and a few iris and daylily spikes. Buds are beginning to swell on the trees outside my windows, and opening day for the Red Sox is next Monday. The times they are a-changing.

Suddenly the lobster boats have been busier on the bay. Flocks of eiders gather and disperse. Bluejays clang in the shrubbery below the cliff. A row of starlings decorates a ridgeline, and two prim pigeons investigate a feeder intended for some other sort of bird. On Saturday Tom brought home soft-shell crabs for dinner.

"You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present." Yet I'm not sure what my "real obsession" is . . . stories, yes, to a degree, but also the sounds and shapes, also the unarticulated longing. Perhaps, really, the longing is the heart of the matter.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

from My Detachment by Tracy Kidder

I had mixed feelings about . . . a young Spec. 4 who improbably enough, had come across a paperback copy of The Brothers Karamozov and had wrestled with it to its end. I don't think he'd finished high school, but I never met a more ardent reader. Periodically, he'd yell, "I'm not readin' this fuckin' book anymore!" and hurl it across his hootch. Half an hour later he'd be on his hands and knees reassembling the scattered pages. . . . I thought we had a bond.

Then one night in the drinking hootch, someone was talking about the Americal Division patch, which depicted the stars of the Southern Cross, and I piped up and said that, speaking of stars, the light from many of them was so old that the stars themselves no longer existed, and that was because, in proportion to their distance from us, light didn't travel all that fast.

"It's pretty fast," the Dostoevsky reader said.

Well, I replied, we human beings couldn't reach most parts of the universe even if we could travel at the speed of light, which we couldn't.

"Oh, yeah? Why?"

"Because mass can't travel the speed of light," I said. . . . "That's Einstein's theory of relativity," I added.

"I don't give a fuck whose theory it is!" He was practically yelling. "Maybe you can't go the speed of light, but don't fuckin' tell me what I can't do!"

* * *

from "Fragging" by Michael Casey

this kind of crime
is getting to be epidemic
it must be catchy
and it's entirely
from electromagnetic disturbances
in the atmosphere
like I'm dumb he yells out
sunspots sunspots

* * *


Saturday, March 25, 2017

I may have found a way to begin writing about my uncle. Copying out Carruth helped, as it so often does . . . though for reasons that are unclear to me. Not that reasons matter. What matters is finding a frame and a sound and an open door.

Overall, yesterday was a good day. I was delighted to watch the Republicans' health-care bill crash and burn. And as I was humming over that debacle, I received an email from the editor of a very famous press, inviting me to submit a Chestnut Ridge proposal. That was an amazing moment. I doubt very much the press will end up taking the book, but getting onto its radar felt like a miracle in itself.

So this morning I will work on that proposal. And this afternoon I will teach an essay workshop. For now I am watching rainwater drip from the balcony, watching seawater crepitate under a pallid sky. Out of sight, the interstate growls and barks, an incessant rubble of noise. There is no silence here. Nonetheless, solitude remains.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Pages from a Commonplace Book

from Vermont by Hayden Carruth

Have I been too hard on Frost? Let's say I have.
Let's say he made, out of his own bad temper
and this forsaken and forsaking land,
a large part of our context. Not the whole,
not that by any means, but nevertheless
a large part. We must come to terms with him,
or find ourselves cut off completely. Frost,
whatever else you say, possessed a saving
curiosity. That's it, he got around,
he knew this people, he explored this land;
he saw, he apprehended, he perceived,
at least at his best he did, and by God that's
seven-eighths of the battle and five-eighths further
than most of us ever get.

* * *

from PFC Timothy Robinson in Vietnam, April 7, 1968, to his family in Minnesota

Im still waiting for my first letter from someone back home. It would be nice to get a package from home about once a week if you could because your son is starving over here. Some of the things you can send are: cans of fuirt, cokies, hard candy, caned meat, anything in cans our jars, hony or some strawbarry jam, joke book, comics book, hot rod books, paper's, baked food's and "kool-aid" The water over here teast like "H" apple sauce. About once a month send some stationary like Im writtin on now. Im going to try and write grandma, Nancy, and Joyce to because they always have good coked foods around but it is hard to get the time and the equip. over here.

I heat to write and ask for food like a pig, but I losing whiegt fast. Dad I would love to have that big hunting kinef with me over here Do you think you could send it to me. Dont get any cold beer or Coke any more. Maybe one or two cans a week

Haven't seen a base camp in a mounth. That's why we can't get any of that good stuff. Im still wearing the same cloth as when I got over here but they gave me new socks last week. We get a chance to swim in the ocean here but the water is to salt to get clean. We have a mud piled in front of our bunker to wash up and shave in. Got to go now

Love and miss ya all lots
Your loven son and brother Tim

P.S. I don't know what good Im doing over here but I'll keep fighting in hopes that my brother may never have to see this dam land.

["The special care packages the family had put together for Robinson were returned several weeks later. On April 19, 1968, Robinson caught his foot on the trip wire to a booby-trapped mine and, quite literally, was blown to pieces."]

* * *

from War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, trans. Constance Garnett

"Now where, your excellency?" asked the coachman.

"Where?" Pierre asked himself. "Where can I go now? Not to the club or to pay calls." All men seemed to him so pitiful, so poor in comparison with the feeling of tenderness and love in his heart, in comparison with that softened, grateful glance [Natasha] had turned upon him that last minute through her tears.

"Home," said Pierre, throwing open the bearskin coat over his broad, joyously breathing chest in spite of ten degrees of frost.

It was clear and frosty. Over the dirty, half-dark streets, over the black roofs was a dark, starlit sky. It was only looking at the sky that Pierre forgot the mortifying meanness of all things earthly in comparison with the height his soul had risen to. As he drove into Arbatsky Square, the immense expanse of dark, starlit sky lay open before Pierre's eyes. Almost in the centre of it above the Prechistensky Boulevard, surrounded on all sides by stars, but distinguished from all by its nearness to the earth, its white light and long, upturned tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of 1812; the comet which betokened, it was said, all manner of horrors and the end of the world. But in Pierre's heart that bright comet, with its long, luminous tail, aroused no feeling of dread. On the contrary, his eyes wet with tears, Pierre looked joyously at this bright comet, which seemed as though after flying with inconceivable swiftness through infinite space in a parabola, it had suddenly, like an arrow piercing the earth, stuck fast at one chosen spot in the black sky, and stayed there, vigorously tossing up its tail, shining and playing with its white light among the countless other twinkling stars. It seemed to Pierre that it was in full harmony with what was in his softened and emboldened heart, that had gained vigour to blossom into a new life.

* * *

from Vermont by Hayden Carruth

Well, I’ve said Robert Frost had curiosity
and took the trouble and go and satisfy it,
on foot or driving that bay mare of his;
he saw the state, he met the people. Yet
my guess is that he traveled by himself.
Your typical Vermonter is a man
of, say, sufficient winters, or a woman
for that matter, walking the back roads,
the pastures, woodlots, hills, and brooks, alone
or with a dog, mostly looking down.
Curiosity? Yes, but it bears inward
as much as outward, maybe more. My dog
is Locky, a mixed-breed bitch, though shepherd
predominates, and in her eleven years
Locky and I have walked these thousand acres
ten thousand times, I reckon. Do you think
we go on sniffing the same old rabbit trail,
examining the same old yellow birch
forever? We grow stiff. We plod now, I
with my stick, Locky with her lame forepaw,
and mostly we look down. And so did Frost.
Which brings me to the “all-important question.”
What is the difference, now at last, between
the contemporary and the archaic?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

One excellent side-effect of buying a new comforter, pillows, and memory-foam pad is that the cat has been too comfortable in bed to bother to yowl-claw me awake at some ungodly hour. For three days in a row, he has been the last one up. So we've all been sleeping well here in the doll-house . . . though I did have an unpleasant dream in which I villainously stole someone's identity or possessions or invented a mountain that did not exist and then made my victim climb it or something involving all of those nefarious behaviors; and if this plot does not make sense to you, well, join the club. (Also, there was a cave involved, and some elementary-school wall decorations. And I think I might have bleached my hair blond.)

Today I have nothing to do. No editing, no classroom prep, no vacuuming. I will walk to the post office to mail cookies to Son #2, but that's about my only pressing obligation. Otherwise, I am going to read and write and practice the violin and water my plants and make cookies for Son #1. When Tom comes home from work, we will walk to the library together. Then I will come home and make dinner and watch the Michigan-Oregon game and receive terse game-time texts from my father and Son #2.

By the way, you'll be shocked to hear that the FBI seems to be finding evidence of collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. I mean, shocking, right? The terrible thing is that it's not shocking. As a poet friend wrote last night, "we knew it in our bones." But what the hell? And in the meantime Trump's callow son is sending rude tweets to the mayor of London, just as the man is dealing with a terrorist attack. And in the meantime our so-called president is threatening House Republicans with retaliation if they fail to support to the party's health-care "solution." And in the meantime the guy on the Senate Intelligence Committee who's been most vociferous in his outrage about leaked FBI information just leaked some FBI information. Our government is a humiliation.

But I did see some crocuses in bloom yesterday. So that's something.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Yesterday I received word that the series editor at a well-known university press would like to read the ms of Chestnut Ridge. There's no guarantee that she will take it, of course, but my spirits are high anyway. Not many university presses have broad poetry programs, and those that do usually consider collections "by invitation only" or build their series via the typical small-press contest model. Most don't deal with poetry at all. So I feel full of good fortune, just to have gotten past this door.

I am fretting, though, over the notion that readers' resurgent interest in Chestnut Ridge may be Trump-related . . . just as my publishing opportunity at the TLS was. Such interest is not bad; I mean, it could even be good; it could even mean that readers want to learn more about individuals they've overlooked or romanticized or derided for so many years. My fretting comes more from my own fear of being seen as a voice or a spokesperson rather than as an artist with a subjective and malleable vision. I am not a journalist or a representative. I'm a neighbor and a cousin, and a writer with the avowedly selfish purpose of striving toward art, and I possess all of the usual blind eyes and gratitudes and irritations, along with the urge to frame and highlight and dramatize. This makes me unreliable as an Expert.

In "Taming the Bicycle," Mark Twain writes about learning to ride one of those old high-wheeled machines. He begins: "I thought the matter over, and concluded I could do it. So I went down and bought a barrel of Pond’s Extract and a bicycle. The Expert came home with me to instruct me. We chose the back yard, for the sake of privacy, and went to work."

Twain's version is what I think of, every time I hear the word Expert: it's the person who always gets smashed by the bicycle. "The machine was not hurt. We oiled ourselves again, and resumed. This time the Expert took up a sheltered position behind, but somehow or other we landed on him again."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Adjunct English Teacher is standing in front of the Celebrate-the-Founding-of-Portland Monument looking bewildered. And yesterday I saw the Doddery Local Poet doing the same thing in the same place. I wonder what epiphanies or anti-epiphanies they're having in that spot. It's a very popular destination, but mostly because dog walkers are attracted by the trash can next to it. From my window I cannot discern anything out of the ordinary, but maybe there's a Certain Slant of Light or something. I should go check it out.

As I horn into their private lives, I stand comfortably here at my desk and stare north across the street, across the park, across the bay toward the water-treatment plant and the baked-bean factory. The cat sleeps on a yellow chair. On the bed behind me, sky-blue pillows and a bright white comforter are crisp and clean and fat and neat. My coffee cup is empty. Sunlight streaks the walls. The rosy buds of the begonia nod toward the light. The windowsill is lined with smooth black stones. Above my desk, a sepia ancestor stares down quizzically from the shelter of her elaborate frame. The doll-house is tidy and tiny and bright.

And now, suddenly, sentimentally, I think of Allen Ginsburg, writing in "Kaddish" of his dead mother, imagining her
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you
     and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—

Monday, March 20, 2017

The temperature is supposed to rise into the 40s today; and if I were at home in Harmony, I would be emoting about crocuses and lettuce seedlings. To curb my longings, I have bought a bouquet of yellow tulips and a small basil plant, which is now flopping against a sunny window. I suspect it won't survive for long, but at least I can clip it into salad as it fails.

I have been unwontedly lazy all weekend, so I need to make sure I get outside at some point to walk in this balmy-ish weather. But I also have a stack of books to get through. That's the problem with doing research. The project begins to get bossy.

I did force myself to do some submitting on Friday. Chestnut Ridge has been on hiatus for a while, but I decided to start trying to convince a few editors to look at it. And thus far two out of three have quickly said yes, so that's something.

I'm at the uncomfortable stage of having two poetry mss. ready for submission, and contests are expensive, and choosing which one to submit where is difficult, and my first inclination is to say the hell with it and not submit anything anywhere, which is just dumb. And my second inclination is to tell myself that Chestnut Ridge must be bad because no one has taken it yet so I'll try to forget that it even exists. And that is just dumb too.

In the meantime, I've got who-knows-what on the unwritten-memoir burner, and that stack of books to read. And a spring day calling me.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Friday night was raucous . . . a packed bar, scads of dancing drunk people, plus guys in grease-covered insulated coveralls trying to pick me up while I was playing. ["Hey, Dawn, I love you. Did you know I was in a motorcycle gang?"] I had to ask my son's best friend (age 22) if he'd be willing to walk me to my car if the guys in coveralls got out of hand. Who knew that being a 52-year-old ex-classical violinist could be so weird?

As a result, I spent most of yesterday on the couch, slumped in a haze of torpor and basketball. But today I feel more normal. I have already written a letter-to-an-editor, and soon I am going to run all sorts of tedious errands and vacuum cat fur off the chairs and scrub the toilet and so on and so on, ad infinitum. But before I go, I'm going to give you some Tolstoy to think about . . . a passage I reread this morning, and that reignited my fear about this Vietnam project I'm undertaking. The story is so large . . . as large as history.

On the 12th of June the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontier, and the war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and all human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another so great a mass of crime--fraud, swindling, robbery, forgery, issue of counterfeit money, plunder, incendiarism, and murder--that the annals of all the criminal courts of the world could not muster such a sum of wickedness in whole centuries, though the men who committed those deeds did not at that time look on them as crimes. 
--Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Constance Garnett

Friday, March 17, 2017

Good morning from the beautiful window.


I'm heading up north this afternoon for a St. Patrick's Day gig tonight in Dover-Foxcroft. In the meantime, I have a day to myself . . . no editing, no shopping, no laundry. Last night Tom and I walked to the library, where I took out three more Vietnam-related books. I'm hoping that at least one will lead me forward. I also did some writing yesterday--the beginning of a hybrid poetry-prose draft styled in the form of a Google search. I don't think I'll maintain that structure in the long run, but it does work as an organizational strategy.

In the past week, I've gotten three separate batches of poems accepted for publication, plus been invited to do a reading. I've worked on an academic book about poetry, copyedited a forthcoming poetry manuscript, and been invited to submit my own. I know this moment is fleeting and illusory, but I do have a sense of settling down, settling into. It's been almost a year, now, since my whole moving ordeal began, and it's not over yet: Tom and I still have to make a decision about where we'll be going next.

I can't say I feel at home. But I'm not crying anymore. So that's a start.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

I am slowly, slowly figuring out how to research the incident involving my uncle's death in Vietnam, but it has been difficult to find out anything about the activities of the Special Forces group he was assigned to, other than generalized military bravado talk. (On a side note, there are far too many vets out there who brag about themselves as "former mercenaries.") The public records at the National Archives offer masses of casualty data, which are helpful but narrow. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress has a single oral history interview from a sergeant, a Green Beret medic, who served in the same Special Forces group and whose dates overlap my uncle's. But the transcript is not available electronically, and the sergeant seems to have been posted in different regions. Still, I'd like to see what he has to say.

This is what I do know. Paul Douglas Potter was a first lieutenant, a Green Beret, a member of the Quartermaster Corps, and a parachutist. He was a Presbyterian from Allentown, New Jersey, unmarried, the youngest of three children. He was called into active duty from the Army Reserve, and he arrived in Vietnam in December 1967.

In Vietnam, Paul served with the Fifth Special Forces Group, Command and Control Central, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG), which, according to Wikipedia, was "a highly classified, multi-service United States special operations unit which conducted covert unconventional warfare operations prior to and during the Vietnam War." He was involved in a number of actions during the Tet Offensive.

In August 1968 he was at a Command and Control Center in Quang Nam Province for a conference of some sort. According to an eyewitness, there were many Green Berets and other Special Forces personnel present, so the event was a big social occasion and a lot of people were drunk. My uncle took a bunk that someone else had wanted. After he went to bed, the North Vietnamese guerillas, who may or may not have previously infiltrated the compound, began tossing satchel bombs. My uncle's chest was impaled by a two-by-four. The eyewitness--the one who had wanted that bunk--saw him through the door, skewered to the bed. He did say that Paul died instantly and probably never knew what hit him.

Paul was 23 years old.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Well, that was an amazing storm. Eighteen inches of snow and 50-mile-per-hour winds; at least 20 cars stuck on our corner, including a cop car and a plow truck. Bicycle Rescue Boys enthusiastically peddling through the mess to help dig people out. Tow trucks galore. Dogs in various states of joy and dismay. And absolutely no sledding . . . the wind was so strong that it would have torn the sleds from our hands. We'll have to wait till tonight.

Today is Ruckus's fourth birthday and also the Ides of March, which seems appropriate. The street is now filled with trudgers carrying snow shovels down to the parking-ban lots and terriers getting stuck in snowbanks. Ruckus is staring balefully out the window. Tom is eating leftover pork and lentil soup for breakfast and preparing to join the trudgers. I, however, am pleasantly indifferent to the fact that the plow guy hasn't cut an entrance into our driveway yet. The longer he procrastinates, the longer I can.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

No snow yet, but the air is ominous, and a small wind is kicking up. Our forecast has been upgraded to "blizzard," which means that I ought to go wine shopping first thing this morning. Silly me for forgetting it.

And now a teaspoon of flakes floats in the glow of the streetlamps. In the distance a dog barks and barks and barks. The sky is a Blakean navy blue, a shade lighter than the navy blue sea. In a moment or two the sun will rise, and the colors will recede to gray. But for now it all impends.

I will write and read and edit today. And do laundry and think of something or other for dinner. And walk out into the storm. 

The man turns and there—
his solitary track stretched out
upon the world.

--from William Carlos Williams, "The Blizzard"

Monday, March 13, 2017

Over the weekend I learned that the journal Scoundrel Time wants to publish two of my John Doe poems, so that was good news. Stranger, more disturbing news involved the discovery online of some first-person recollections about my uncle's death in Vietnam. I'll talk about that with you eventually, but I need to organize my thoughts . . . which means not only addressing the fact that I've found an eyewitness description of his death but also exploring some questions: such as, What's the story with this Special Forces organization he was involved with? And why was he away from his own unit and with another one? I will tell you that the incident involved the war's largest number of Green Beret casualties and that it seemed to be part of a mid-year flareup (July-August 1968) of the Tet Offensive.

Like many of you, we're bracing for a March blizzard this week, though Tom and I may be the only people in Portland who are excited. Tom bought me a sled for Valentine's Day, but then we promptly got too sick to go sledding, and then all of the snow melted. So on Tuesday night, I'll be a healthy person riding a sled down a steep seaside hill into the driving snow, and I can't wait.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Tom and I went out to meet our friend Lucy for a drink last night. Lucy is 25 years old and the daughter of our north-country Wellington friends, but she has been living in Portland for the past couple of years, and she can solve many mysteries for me, such as, Is the Bubba who owns Bubba's Sulky Lounge a real person? Plus, I have known her since she was three and I love her.

Anyway, it was really cold last night, so naturally, since we were walking to the bar, I dressed for the weather. But the first thing Lucy said when she saw me was "OH MY GOD, YOU'RE WEARING SNOWPANTS! THAT IS SO CENTRAL MAINE!" And then all three of us laughed and laughed and laughed. Because of course: wearing snowpants to a city bar on Saturday night is really funny. I should note, however, that I was also wearing earrings and make-up. So I wasn't completely Central Maine.

Friday, March 10, 2017

I woke up this morning to a street full of fire trucks and flashing lights and idling diesel engines and fire fighters standing around in fire suits chit-chatting and staring at the house across from ours, which, from the outside, looked much as usual. Then, after all a while, for no discernible reason, the guys got into their trucks and the trucks drove away, and everything across the street looks just the same as it always has, except that now the cellar door is open.

As a result of the uproar, the cat decided against going outside for his morning constitutional, which is not breaking my heart, as I do not have much fun wrestling him into a harness and then standing around in the cold waiting until he tries, again, to slither under the neighbor's porch (I yank him out), or under my car (I yank him out), or inside a drainpipe (I yank him out). Taking a cat for a walk really means taking a cat for a lurk. And lurking is difficult with a leash.

Anyway, in a few hours, I'll be heading north for this afternoon's gig at the Squaw Mountain Music Festival, so the cat will have to do today's lurking entirely indoors. I've got my bag of cough drops and my bottle of ibuprofen and the remaining few pills in my penicillin dosage. I am determined to make it through all of my songs without choking. Afterward I'll spend the night with my friends who live off the grid . . . dark skies, cold air, candles, and a backhouse (aka a well-designed outhouse attached to the house so you don't have to go outside to use it: an amazing boon on a below-zero night). I love to be there.

I've starting collecting my Vietnam materials. The Portland Public Library's choices are not that broad, so I'm stuck with Stanley Karnow's 1983 history of the war, which seems both dry and dated. But at least it will help me out with the facts. The library did offer me Lorrie Goldensohn's edited anthology, American War Poetry, which is both excellent as far as content goes and a beautifully designed physical object (with the exception of a couple of misplaced footnotes). It includes poems from the colonial period through the Persian Gulf wars, but so far I've only been reading the Vietnam-era pieces. And I am interested by her introduction of them:
With the exception of the Civil War, no other war divided the American public so virulently and for so long a time--and yet the divisions that these war poems reflect is not one of politics, or of a division between support or lack of support for the war. In fact, no sophisticated or interesting prowar poetry has yet emerged from this period. Even the division in the poems between home front and battlefield ultimately gave way to a consensus of hearts and minds about stopping a war seen by nearly all those who chose to write poems as senseless and immoral.
So Vietnam has no version of Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" Or Alan Seeger's "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." No Karl Shapiro's "Troop Train."

What it has is version after version of Doug Anderson's "Infantry Assault:
The way he made that corpse dance
by emptying one magazine after another into it
and the way the corpse's face began to peel off
like a mask because the skull had been shattered, brains
spilled out, but he couldn't stop killing that corpse,
wanted to make damn sure, I thought maybe
he was killing all the ones he'd missed . . .

Thursday, March 9, 2017

I started writing an essay yesterday, which may or may not go anywhere, but at least I was writing, at least I was writing. And reading, and going to the library to hunt down more books, and singing to myself along the way. Finally, I can say that I am healthy again . . . and also cheerful, as my husband pointed out, with palpable relief. The poor man has been living with a dishrag for too long.

Tomorrow morning I'll drive north for an afternoon show at the Squaw Mountain ski lodge in Greenville, and I'm pretty confident that my voice will hold out--or at least not get any worse than a mild smoker's rasp. Today I'll edit, and maybe spend some more time with that essay, and go grocery shopping, and work on memorizing some songs, and read Vietnam war poetry, and read War and Peace.

Outside my window I see the Adjunct English Teacher walking slowly up the sidewalk. I only know that's his job because, soon after we moved here, I overheard him introduce himself that way to another walker. But I don't think he does much adjunct English teaching because he spends an awful lot of time plodding around the neighborhood in an orange down jacket and various kinds of inappropriate footwear (e.g., socks and sandals in a slush storm). I feel there is a sad story, which unfortunately for him may also be comic, behind the mask of the Adjunct English Teacher.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

It's raining lightly this morning, and I glimpse a row of eiders swimming beside the jetty. The gulls are noisier than usual, and in singles and in pairs they are muscling purposefully toward the east. Someone down on the docks must have opened a box of bait.

Last night I braised pork loin in milk, Marcella Hazan style, and served it with fresh spinach and roasted fingerlings. Today I have no cooking plans, at least not yet. I do, however, have a library plan . . . to investigate what it's got for Vietnam-era poetry and a good basic history of the war. I have been editing a scholarly book about soldier-poetry, which has given me some names and sources. And I am wondering if it's about time for me to start seriously dealing with family history and the war. For my whole life, I've pussy-footed around my uncle's death in a "I'm just a niece, I was just a baby, what do I know?" kind of way. On the other hand, I named my son after him. And I'm a poet. So clearly I've got obligations.

So we'll see. I've been wondering what my next project might need to be.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

It felt good to read new poems last night, though as soon as I opened my mouth my voice assumed a husky rasp reminiscent of Patricia Neal's in Hud. The place was packed, which was amazing, as I always expect a total of three people in a poetry-reading audience. I saw friends, and I listened to other people's poems: poems in Arabic, and poems composed by people who cannot read or write in any traditional way, poems about Labrador and Darfur and other worlds I have never entered. And then Tom and I walked home through the quiet city, and that was good too.

Now, this morning, I am thinking of potatoes and a pork roast, and of War and Peace, and of gray-green islands flattened against a reddening sky. Yesterday I found out that Chestnut Ridge was a semifinalist in a national contest, which is not as good as winning but is better than the usual sort of rejection. Who knows if the poor thing will ever see the light of publication day? That does not seem likely, at least not at the moment. But at least I know somebody out there actually read it.

Anyway, the poems are the poems, whether or not they appear in print. Writing them was the work and the reward. I used to think that successful writers invented such platitudes to make those of us in the trenches feel better about being ignored. Now I know better. Everything about writing is more complicated than I thought it was, back in the old days, when I hid under the rhododendrons and wished to be Dickens.


Monday, March 6, 2017

I'm feeling pretty good this morning--no coughing fits worth mentioning, minor mouth irritation, a reasonable amount of energy, plus the cat graciously allowed me to sleep in past six this morning. So I'm feeling refreshed, even hopeful (even though I did spend much of the night dreaming about ravenous attack foxes who break into people's homes and murder them like chickens).

I've got a reading tonight, but all of my books-to-sell are in storage. Therefore, I've decided to read only new work . . . maybe only really new work, which would mean poems from the current manuscript of Songs about Women and Men. Here's one of those pieces:

Disappointed Women

They lived in filth. Or were horribly clean.
They piled scrapple onto dark platters.
They poured milk and ignored the phone.

They arranged stones on windowsills.
They filled lists and emptied shelves.
They dyed their hair in the sink.

One stored a Bible in the bathroom.
One hoarded paper in the dining room.
One stared at Lolita and stirred the soup.

When I say emptied I mean they wanted to feel.
When I say filled I mean they wanted to jump.
When I say bathroom, dining room, soup I mean

I washed my hands.
I sat at the table.
I ate what they gave me.

[previously published in the Portland Press-Herald, November 2016]

* * *

Not all of the pieces are so glum. "John Doe's Love Letter," for instance, is not glum at all, but I can't reprint it for you yet because it's just come out in the new issue of the Beloit Poetry Journal. When it gets to be old hat over there, I can share it with you here.

Anyway, if you're able, I'd love to see you tonight, at Vinland, at 8 p.m. Tom will be there. Friends of my youth will be there. Friends who are youth will be there. It will be sweet to embrace you all in one place.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My friend, the poet Jay Franzel, sent me the following small piece, one of a number of brief political essays he's been writing lately. Given my tooth issues, he thought it was appropriate. Or maybe he just thought it would make us all gnash our teeth.

A Gamble

Jay Franzel

I recently heard from my buddy, Wildcat Mike. I was glad to get his e-mail; usually he only writes when the University of Kentucky wins a basketball championship or is cited for recruiting violations. Mike wrote: "Dude! I had a wicked toothache and called my dentist for an emergency filling. He agreed to see me, even though it was after hours. So I’m in the waiting room reading a Field & Stream and guess who comes walking out of the dental chair?"

I replied, "John Calipari?"

"No—Mitch McConnell! I always wondered who his dentist was. And here he is, seeing my guy!"

"So did you talk to him?"
"Nah, he kept his head down and walked out. But I asked Dr. Vann about him. He said, 'Pretty good guy, doesn’t say much. 'Course it’s hard to talk while you’re getting your teeth cleaned. Every appointment he says, "What’s the damage?" and when I tell him, he whistles and shakes his head. Then he says, "Good thing I’ve got that taxpayer-funded insurance!"' Funny, huh?"

"Hilarious. So how’s your tooth?"

"Tooth’s great, but I’m out three hundred bucks. If UK doesn’t win by at least 11 next game, I’m toast."


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Last night I dreamed up a new movie for Charlie Chaplin's oeuvre, a film called The Two Fops that I was watching in my sleep, until Tom came to bed and I woke up and told him about the movie, and he laughed and said, "What is a fop?"

So I explained the definition of fop, and then this morning I googled the title, just in case there really was a movie by that name. I did not discover a movie, but the British Museum does own a Jean Louis Forain print, Les Deux Gommeux, whose title translates as The Two Fops, and it looks remarkably like a still from my imaginary silent movie. Of course I have never seen this print before.



So that is today's weird brain invention-conflation. The whole thing feels very Iris Murdoch. Perhaps I will shortly have a strange philosophical obsession with the print curator at the British Museum, who will turn out to be having an affair with my sister-in-law, who herself is involved with an odd cultish group studying the bones of Richard III, and all the women in our story will be wearing beautiful brightly colored clothes, and the men will be slightly sweaty and wear nylon undershirts beneath their business suits, and we will walk on pebble beaches in inappropriate shoes, and one of us will own an all-seeing dog who rescues someone or other from an undersea grotto, and The Two Fops will be reprinted ambiguously on the book cover.

Friday, March 3, 2017

I just returned from the North, where I managed to sing (mostly) without coughing uncontrollably. The antibiotics are kicking in, and both the abscess and my inflamed sinuses are beginning to shrink. So except for the irritation of having nothing for breakfast except for the doughnut I ate in the car (ugh, I hate doughnuts), I'm feeling reasonably chipper.

I also just received an invitation to read on Monday night, along with the poet Gary Lawless, who recently won a lifetime achievement award from the Maine Humanities Council, and the poet Ekhlas Ahmed, a teacher at a local high school who has appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to talk about her life as a Sudanese refugee and an English language learner. So that's very exciting . . . not least because this will be my inaugural appearance as a Portland resident. If you're available, I hope you can come see us.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Finally, a diagnosis!

It turns out that I have a periodontal abscess, which the sinusitis was disguising. I've never had tooth trouble before, so presumably I picked up this sideline infection while the sinus virus was battering me. Now I am swallowing penicillin pills four times a day and waiting for the abscess to shrink and/or burst . . . "unless," mused the nurse practitioner, "you want me to slit it open now with this knife, but that wouldn't be very fun."

No, really it wouldn't.

But at least I know what's wrong now, and at least I've got some prospect of cure . . . though honestly my mouth feels just as crappy today as it did yesterday. Still, I will persevere with my plans: first, a visit to the ELL kids at South Portland High, then back to the doll-house to edit, then a drive up north for band practice.

In other news: it looks like Jeff Sessions did talk to the Russians. I'm sure you're all so shocked. But of course he will remain perfectly unbiased in any DOJ investigation of Flynn et al. [Choke.]

What those guys need is a nice tooth abscess.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The fog is thick again this morning, and a 40-degree mist clings to the skin like cold spring. The cat and I were out before dawn, prowling around wet flowerbeds and tree trunks, until a woman in a hat walked past and the cat lost his mind and dashed back into the building. Now we are staring out the window into cloud punctured by headlights. I'll be going back to the doctor today, hoping that this time she'll consider a round of antibiotics. My sinusitis appears to have morphed into what now looks like a localized gum infection--presumably my resistance was down because I've never had any teeth problems before. The situation is complicated because I'm in the process of transferring records from my previous doctor and dentist and haven't yet gotten into the new-patient system with anyone. Plus, not every provider wants to take insurance backed by the ACA [thank you so much, congressional Republicans], so I'm depending on the urgent care staff to get me through this. Ugh.

Anyway, tomorrow morning I'm supposed to sit in on a poetry-teaching session for ELL high schoolers in South Portland, which I've really been looking forward to. I hope I won't have to back out. I'm also worried because I've got two singing gigs on the horizon, and I need to be well for them.

On the bright side, I'm getting a lot of editing done. I'm taking long walks by the sea. I'm playing Bach on the violin. I've got a jar of pink tulips on my kitchen table.

Eugenia Todd 
Edgar Lee Masters
Have any of you, passers-by,
Had an old tooth that was an unceasing discomfort?
Or a pain in the side that never quite left you?
Or a malignant growth that grew with time?
So that even in profoundest slumber
There was shadowy consciousness or the phantom of thought
Of the tooth, the side, the growth?
Even so thwarted love, or defeated ambition,
Or a blunder in life which mixed your life
Hopelessly to the end,
Will like a tooth, or a pain in the side,
Float through your dreams in the final sleep
Till perfect freedom from the earth-sphere
Comes to you as one who wakes
Healed and glad in the morning!






Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I know I have faded into the wallpaper lately, but I want to assure you that even in illness I remain incensed at the actions and reactions of our goon-in-chief . . . or perhaps I should say "lack of reaction," as in WHAT DOES IT MEAN WHEN A PRESIDENT STAYS SILENT AFTER A WHITE RACIST SHOOTS TWO INDIAN-AMERICANS BECAUSE "HE THOUGHT THEY WERE IRANIAN"?

Pardon the screaming capital letters, but really. [List of expletives deleted.]

Here we slump in America, languishing under the thumb of bullies and hypocrites. Whitman's poem is breaking my heart.

America 
Walt Whitman 
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.


Monday, February 27, 2017

I spent my Sunday walking to the bakery for baguettes and vacuuming the living room and reading War and Peace and falling headfirst into one of those giant rabbit-hole naps that feels like a two-day coma. I hope it will all be salutary.

This morning the big sky is brilliantly clear. The sun is glittering off the few remaining snow patches, and a small wind is kicking up ripples on the bay.

I'd like to do some writing today, if I can get a good chunk of editing done first. I'd like to play the violin. I'd like to walk in the wind. I'd like to stop thinking about my teeth. Maybe it will all come true.

In the meantime, War and Peace has turned out to be exactly the book I need.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

I'm sure you're tired of hearing that I'm still sick, so I won't perseverate on that issue, except to shout that progress is being made and my sinuses are a fine-tuned machine.

Yesterday Tom and I went shopping for a futon sofa for his study, so now we have a place to house any friend who cares to contract this virus and/or entertain the cat at 4:30 a.m. If that's you, please don't hesitate to visit. I have plenty of kleenex.

We also took a walk to the fish market and bought the ingredients for the Portuguese seafood stew I raved about here a few weeks ago. I'm happy to say that it was just as delicious this time. Afterward we took a short stroll in the rain, and then we sat on the couch and ate cannoli and watched two episodes of Arrested Development and went to bed before 10 because that's what people do on Saturday night when they're lame.

Today, I suppose I will do housework. Probably I will go for a walk. I will read War and Peace and congratulate myself on reducing my ibuprofen consumption by half. Tooth nerve-pain management is hell. But then again, George Eliot wrote all of her novels with her teeth rotting out of her head. Maybe the next Middlemarch is in my future.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Dense fog this morning. No sign of a sea or a park. The houses on the street are draped in veils. Sky and air are indistinguishable.

I am sitting on the couch drinking black coffee and wondering if I am feeling better.

Last night I made braised farmers'-market duck legs with red wine and prunes, served on a bed of wild rice and brown rice. It was a lovely meal, and not even difficult to produce in the doll kitchen . . . unlike bread, which is just unpleasant. It makes me sad to have lost my bread rhythm.

When I was visiting my parents earlier this week, I found myself wandering around the house, amazed at the roominess. Look at this counter space! Look at this bathroom with a window!

But of course I do have an ocean. And shops with excellent bread. And really good water pressure in the shower.

I never did get started on War and Peace yesterday. Instead, I forced myself to read some political articles in the New Yorker. Maybe today I will be smarter and stick with Napoleonic chaos instead of our own.

I keep meaning to mention that I'll be teaching two workshops this spring. The first will be a half-day session here in Portland, on March 25 . . . a reprise of the essay-writing class I led in Rockland last fall. The second will be an all day poetry-writing and -revision class up north in Trescott, on May 6. I think the Portland class is almost full, but there might be a space or two left in it.

My band is also playing two gigs this month: March 10 at the Squaw Mountain Music Festival in Greenville (with the Mallett Brothers) and March 17 at Pat's in Dover-Foxcroft.

Surely I will not be sick for any of these events. [Sigh.]

Surely Donald Trump will not be elected president. [Wishful revisionist sigh.]


Friday, February 24, 2017

I'm still striving to quell my whatever-it-is virus, but I did manage to edit all day yesterday, deal with a whiny cat, muddle through a non-draining-washing-machine problem, prepare a palatable meal, and go out to a basement bar hidden behind a secret door to watch my friend's daughter's boyfriend do a standup act. So that's something, I guess.

Here in Portland, the temperature is 45 degrees above zero, with a rainstorm in the offing. The sidewalk conditions are sloppy/icy/muddy/thawing. The bay is pale blue. The sunrise is fading into pearl. Two dogs are quarreling over a frisbee.

Today I am going to begin rereading War and Peace for the thirtieth time (or the twentieth? the fortieth? who knows?).

And you might like to read this brief essay, "Artists Dying," by my friend Tom Rayfiel. As I told him, reading it pushed me to recall my own artists-dying experiences, one of which involved the country singer Porter Wagoner inside a white leather suit that seemed to be his only link to life. And of course there was my best friend from college, the actor Jilline Ringle, who, as she was dying of cancer, physically morphed from a glamorous chanteuse into the body of a woman who seemed to be a man dressed up as a glamorous chanteuse . . . a sort of artificial drag queen. Anyway, read Tom's essay and I have no doubt you'll begin to remember your own artists-dying vignettes.

Bargain Shopper

Dawn Potter

I miss you, Jilline, though stuck in this frozen so-called spring
I don’t picture you regretting my grim haunts; you, the girl
Who adored high summer, sporting your cheap slinky cling-
Tight blouses, those cat-eye shades propped in your dyed curls,
Your pink-flowered skirts, and a pair of flapping tacky lamé slides
On your big sore feet. Your beau-idée of taste was a dollar sale
At Marshall’s, the two of us name-dropping Ruskin and Gide,
Stage-whispering, “There’s your boyfriend,” across the gaudy aisles
At first sight of every funny-looker we met: those goat-
Faced circus clowns, those clad-entirely-in-blue albinos—
What freaks wandered this earth! . . . and you, decked out
Like a discount drag queen, lovingly deriding my beige vinyl
Sandals half-mended with bread ties.  Only your puff of frail hair
Mentioned you were dying. The freaks pretended not to stare.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]

Thursday, February 23, 2017

I have returned from my Vermont ordeal, which was an ordeal only because I had a relapse and spent the entire trip on ibuprofen life support. I drove hours and hours, and ate meals, and chatted like a dutiful zombie, but of course everyone could tell I was really the pathetic facsimile of a dutiful zombie. I went to the doctor as soon as I got home, and this morning I am, once again, beginning to rise from the ashes. But geez . . . common cold cannot be the correct term for this viral quicksand. Plus, look at my metaphorical drip: zombies, a phoenix, quicksand. That is surely a sign of serious illness.

Anyway, onward. Perhaps I will be more Hemingway-esque tomorrow.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Whatever you do, avoid catching this so-called cold. I came back from band practice feeling worse, and now this morning I can't tell how I feel . . . maybe the same, maybe better. If I had a doctor in this town and if it weren't Sunday and if I didn't have to drive to Vermont tomorrow to bring the boy back to college, I'd probably call her up and ask for antibiotics. As it stands, however, my choices are hot beverages and positive thinking. So I will declare, "I feel great!" and blame the New York Times for false reporting. That should work.

I've been rereading Aracelis Girmay's stunning poetry collection the black maria, and now I'm about to start Jacques Rancourt's Novena. Jacques was an intern at the Beloit Poetry Journal when I was working there, and I'm so excited about his book. It makes me happy to know he's doing so well, writing so well, getting the attention his work deserves. Sometimes things work out the way they should.

I also want to recommend another book, one that everyone in our doll-house has become enamored with: Ancient Land, Sacred Whale: The Inuit Hunt and Its Rituals by Tom Lowenstein. Last week Paul bought it on a whim at the used book store. He knew nothing about it but wanted to learn more about the Inuit. Turns out that the book is a strange and magical amalgam of poetry and ethnography: a mixture of translations and commentaries centering around the myth and the actualities of the Tikigaq people's annual spring bowhead hunt. The prose is beautiful and evocative and instructional, and it's no wonder that Ted Hughes, of all people, refers to Lowenstein's Tikigaq translations as "works at once of detailed scholarship and high poetic achievement." Reading it is kind of like reading Moby Dick and kind of like reading The Golden Bough and kind of like reading Njal Saga. It's enchanting.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Last night: a giant water main break and a sinkhole downtown "big enough to fit an SUV," according to the local paper. This morning: a boil-water order for our entire neighborhood. Plus, all of our local streets have been marked "Emergency No Parking." City living is so relaxing.

Though, in fact, it is relaxing. I mean, the toilet still flushes and the shower still works. We have heat and electricity. And for a change, Tom and I aren't the ones digging up the water lines and fixing the break. In fact, the whole event has put us into a good mood. All we had to do was boil a few kettles' worth of water and pour it into my stash of empty canning jars. Simple.

Today, on this sparkling sunny day,  I'll be walking downtown to get my hair cut. Later I'll be driving north for band practice. I'm feeling almost well again. It's good to be lighthearted.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

It's possible that I might be feeling better this morning, but I don't want to jinx anything by claiming victory too early. I'm supposed to drive north for band practice tomorrow, and singing continues to seem like a bad idea. Still, it's been 20 minutes since I last coughed or blew my nose. That is certainly progress.

I also hope I become less stupid. I kept receiving emails yesterday that assumed I knew how to think or make decisions: "What kind of poetry workshop do you want to teach?" "How do Common Core goals relate to what you do at the Frost Place?" "When will you be ready to take on another editing project?" My brain had no answers for any of these questions. It could barely figure out what I should make for breakfast.

Do you know the Laurie Anderson song "Baby Doll"? Some of its lyrics seem particularly apropos:
Well, I'm sitting around trying to write a letter.
I'm wracking my brains trying to think
Of another word for horse. 
I ask my brain for some assistance.
And he says:
"Huh . . . Let's see . . . How about cow? That's close."

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tom got me a sled for Valentine's Day. I got him a dozen oysters at Eventide Oyster Company. However, we were too sick to sled or eat oysters, so instead we spent a slack-jawed evening on the couch drinking tea, blowing our noses, and staring at episodes of Arrested Development. I feel slightly better this morning, but still pretty much like crap. Nonetheless, I am going to rally my inner forces and go for a walk before the snow starts up again. And I am going to sweep the floors. And possibly I am going to edit a manuscript without inserting errors. Tom, who is a mathematically precise carpenter, says that he has been measuring things wrong for days. Likewise, I have been barely able to figure out how to change a sentence from passive to active voice. [Look, a sentence written in passive voice! You fix it, because I can't be bothered.]

On the bright side, however, I have not engaged in any treasonous conversations with Russia . . . or have I? I mean, as Trump's campaign pal Paul Manafort points out, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’” Geez, any one of us could have accidentally discussed dropping sanctions or fixing an election. I'm sure all of the White House officials are as pure and innocent as newborn babes [choke, cough, sneeze].

These past three weeks of governance have felt like a century.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day


Dawn Potter

The plow guy shows up four hours after the snow has stopped
and plows a rosebush.
But in the dark of the year
I don’t care about roses.
What I care about is an emergency exit to the street
so I can escape from my own toils and devices,

a hatch that he carves out for me,
after a fashion,
though it’s littered with cigarette butts
and speckles of hydraulic fluid.
When I trudge out to hand him his cash,
he doesn’t even bother

to transfer the joint to the other hand.
He smiles broadly, like a man should smile
when he’s just finished plowing the driveway
of a woman who’s rumored to write poems,
who’s ten years older than himself,
and whose son plays soccer on his daughter’s team,

where they do real good
because both kids are fast and can score, and once
they even got their names drawn from plastic pickle jars
and had to dance together at the middle-school Snow Ball.
Not that they liked it.
I feel a little sad

when the plow guy doesn’t go so far
as to offer me the joint.
It’s a disappointment,
but, in the long run,
probably for the best
since, if we did smoke a joint together—

his plaid elbow poking out of the pickup window,
me with my bare feet stuck into barn boots
and the zipper half torn out of my coat—
we might have to talk about something
like ice fishing,
or how big our skinny kids are getting,

or what the cold’s supposed to do tomorrow,
instead of just plowing and smiling, and paying,
and turning our backs
in the way citizens do
who’ve modestly eyed each other for a score of years
but won’t believe they have a life in common,

except for snow
and old clothes, and two kids
who chase a ball down a shaggy field.
Though now we share this morning’s dose of loneliness.
God forbid
that we should mention such a thing.

[from Same Old Story (CavanKerry Press, 2014)]